Saturday 29 January 2000

Secret Bridesmaids' Business, Jan 29, 2000

 by Elizabeth Coleman
at Merlin Theatre, Malthouse until February 19, 2000
 Further Melbourne and regional shows in August
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The bridesmaids are back and this time they are going on tour!

Secret Bridesmaids' Business was a box office hit last year for Playbox and writer, Elizabeth Coleman. It is a light comedy that appeals to a wide audience because it deals with a topic everyone knows: love and marriage, or more specifically, weddings.

Enormous weddings may seem to be out of vogue but look around Parliament house on a Saturday afternoon when the photographers are hunting the perfectly memorable wedding snap. Everybody wants the perfect photo album and idyllic memories of a sunny day with no hitches.

Meg Bacon (Jane Hall) , at thirty-three, wants a white wedding, with matching bridesmaids' shoes and the ideal husband. Of course, the wedding is really her mother, Colleen's, dream. (Joan Sydney) and nothing will stop her getting the wedding she wants for her daughter. What would the neighbours think?

Meg is facing disaster on her wedding eve. Her two girlfriends, the thoroughly modern and promiscuous Lucy (Kate Jackson) and suburban mum, Angela, (Roz Hammond) have an awful secret.

They must decide whether to tell Meg that her fiance, James (Scott Irwin) is having an affair with another girlfriend, Naomi (Nicole Nabout).

What would you do? Check that it is true first, of course. Then panic? To tell or not to tell. Angela values discretion as the better part of friendship, Lucy prides herself on her honesty.

Neither can protect Meg who will be damaged by knowing or not knowing. Essentially, they can't win. James has betrayed their beloved friend and they can't change that.

Nobody thinks of forcing the groom to admit his sin himself. That's odd.

This show, directed by Catherine Hill  and designed by Shaun Gurton, is a remount with only two of the original six cast. Joan Sydney is still sensationally funny and poignant as the demanding, sulky Colleen. Jackson captures the provocative directness of Lucy.

After only two weeks rehearsal, the new cast members look very uncomfortable and the characters are not fully developed yet. Comic timing is essential to this play. it is a series of very funny gags which need strong characters to deliver them with precise timing.

The production has a long run coming so it will certainly tighten up but something of the wicked playfulness of the original ensemble is missing in this remount.

by Kate Herbert for 2 pag

Wednesday 26 January 2000

Company, Jan 26, 2000

Music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim book by George Furth
 Melbourne Theatre Company at Playhouse until February 26, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Stephen Sondheim grew up next door to Oscar Hammerstein; any wonder he writes such terrific musicals?

The difference between Sondheim and other major musical theatre writers is that his songs are less recognisable, less hummable, less critically accepted in their time.

He broke the mould of conventional musical by choosing a non-linear narrative. They focus on ideas and emotion rather than romance - which is not to say that Company is not about love.

Sondheim dives into the mind of Bobby, (Peter Cousens) an attractive, single New Yorker who yearns for a marriage which equals those of his coupled friends. We see Bobby on his thirty-fifth birthday when he discovers that his married friends are throwing him a surprise party that night.

Bobby's memories about the couples, and his relationships with them, are the core of the show. The musical, first produced on Broadway in 1970, is based on Playlets, a series of vignettes about relationships written by George Furth.

 Bobby visits friends, all of whom adore him, want him to be happy, to marry, to remain single, to be theirs, (even the men) to be what they can no longer be. No wonder he's confused and commitment-shy.

Cousens is charming and in fine voice as Bobby. The show is directed stylishly by Simon Phillips on a glass-walled design. It is as if we are looking into mirrors: at ourselves, our friends, our own lives.

Sondheim's music is delightfully interpreted by a nine-piece band under musical director Ian McDonald.. Company boasts the haunting song, Being Alive,  sung with bitter-sweetness by Cousens, and the witty and poignant Ladies Who Lunch which is sung with exceptional warmth and anguish by Caroline Gillmer.

You Could Drive a Person Crazy is rendered with colour and pizzazz by Helen Buday, Paula Arundell, and Charmaine Clements playing Bobby's  =three lovers. The tongue-twisting Getting Married Today, sung with hilarious marriage phobia by Christen O'Leary, was a huge hit.

All members of this versatile, vibrant cast, sing as well as they act. Nicki Wendt, Annie Wilson, Rachael Tidd, Gillmer and O'Leary play the wives. Jeremy Stanford, Colin Lane, Robert Grubb, Philip Gould and Gary Down, play the husbands.

Sondheim touches hearts, challenges lives and musical traditions. It is a joy to watch this production.

by Kate Herbert

Tuesday 25 January 2000

In a Soul, Jan 25, 2000

 by Four on the Floor
La Mama at the Courthouse until February 12, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Have you ever had a week when every event, conversation, movie and book seems to be about the same idea? This week, everybody and everything is talking to me about the soul;

Well, its not only about the soul, but notions of change, living in the present, life not being a rehearsal, moments of bliss and "carpe diem". Get the picture?

The most recent bubble of such philosophy was In A Soul by Four On The Floor. (Rosina Gannon, Charlie Laidlaw, Georgia Power, Kim Leeanda Wilson) It is an engaging toddle around the human soul.

The soul always looked, in my imagination, like a whole peanut. It was cloudy with patches of grey, depending on how naughty you were.

The charm of Four on the Floor is twofold. They combine honest and unpretentious personal stories with very neatly crafted form.

Greg Dyson directs them stylishly, keeping the show bouncing along with few hiccups, no dull spots and lots of satisfyingly crisp stylisation.

Snatches of text are drawn from sources as diverse as Dr. Seuss, Carl Jung and Emily Dickinson (queen of the death poem).All of the writers are concerned with concepts of self, dreams, visions, death, the bizarre, joy and despair.

Four strangers travel on a train. The beginning of their journey is repeated. They each have long tracts of boredom. They also have moments of insight which are actually when our souls "drop in".

Actually, they are dropped in by soul droppers who hover over us, pick the moment. Then they celebrate their success in giving us heightened experiences, startling visions and spontaneous joy.

We see the women sleep and dream. We see them die and witness the retrieval of the "black box" which records our lives and is replayed in our final moments.

Four on the Floor capture in clown, movement, song (Chris Falk) and story, the sheer ridiculousness and beauty of our lives and the incredulity with which we face each magical crazy day.

Life is a gift, isn't it?

by Kate Herbert

Saturday 22 January 2000

New Work in Australian Theatre Writing, Jan 22, 2000

New Work in Australian Theatre Writing: themes, content and style
Writer: Kate Herbert
Jan 22, 2000

It has always been the responsibility of artists to reflect and critique the society in which we live. Playwrights observe our political, historical and psychological behaviour, often with devastating accuracy.

Theatre, it may be argued, is in the vanguard of social change. Some argue that radical theatre merely reflects change immediately after it has occurred.

In Eastern Europe, writers were compelled to disguise their political concerns. In order not to be arrested for treason, they buried their arguments for social change within allegories. When the Soviet Union collapsed, the Eastern bloc artists were left with no beast of conservatism to fight. Theatre companies disintegrated.

Last year, nine years after the Berlin Wall came down, the leftist Berliner Ensemble, fonded by Bertolt Brecht, closed its doors. The older artists just stopped wanting to fight.

So what are the themes and styles that are preoccupying our own playwrights in this rapidly changing world? It seems that the future, the economy, technology, feminism, history, families and relationships are on the top of our playwrights’ lists of topics.

Kate Cherry, Associate Director of the Melbourne Theatre Company, suggests there is a plethora of styles but she observes three main themes prevalent in new writing by major playwrights.

Firstly, Cherry observes writers "re-examining our place in Asia". Louis Nowra's Language of the Gods set in Indonesia, queries the impact of Dutch colonisation. Adam May's Rising Fish Prayer criticises Australia's role in New Guinea

Secondly, Cherry sees writers "examining the effects of economic rationalism and what happens if our world becomes more technological." The corporatisation of universities features in Hannie Rayson's play, Life After George. In Woman at the Window, Alma de Groen postulates a world in which poetry is a dangerous but marketable commodity.

Finally, says Cherry, playwrights are questioning "what it is to be in a post-modern family ... and how families are breaking down and re-forming" into non-traditional groups.

"Is it mum, grandpa and children?", Cherry asks. The Sick Room by Stephen Sewell, Burnt Piano by Justin Fleming and Joanna Murray-Smith's Nightfall, all attempt to penetrate the dark morass which is the family in crisis.

In the first, a daughter dies, the second a mother obsesses about a famous man while ignoring her child's needs, and in Nightfall, parents struggle with their daughter's accusations of incest.

Liz Jones, Artistic Director of La Mama describes the content in fringe writers' work similarly. She sees many new writers expressing "concerns about the future (and) what kind of society we want."

They ask, Jones says, "How a community relates to its history, how the future relates to the past, how we can have a caring sharing society, how the personal relates to the technological."

Sam Sejavka's Eaters of Filth challenges our obsession with youth and longevity. Raimondo Cortese, in Features of Blown Youth, examines the inner-urban angst of young people as does Christos Tsiolkas in Viewing Blue Poles.

Jones also sees "a strong feminist thrust which is not overt... Both men and women are considering the position of women in history". A few years ago, according to Jones, women were writing about relationships and doing solo shows.

"They are writing more broadly now, which is a statement of their confidence. They are not writing just for themselves now and not just for women."

Tom Healy, Artistic Associate at Playbox Theatre, sees two categories of styles in the unsolicited plays arriving at Playbox.

"palys by young writers in their 20's to early 30's, have a filmic influence, are naturalistic in style, with chopped up scenes, out of order but not abstract.". Their content, observes Healy, is often "grungey, drug-ridden, nihilistic, expressing a high level of despair."

The other prevalent style Healy describes as "aren't we quirky". situation-based naturalism.

The younger writers are not focussed on the political, Healy and Jones agrees. Whereas established playwrights such as Nowra, Hall, Rayson and Williamson, investigate political issues.

The major playwrights are also using naturalistic dialogue accompanied by broader metaphorical stories visions and language Healy believes that "the prevailing critical attitude is that naturalism is somehow less worthy than the larger landscape." 
Healy sees four of the major plays in the Playbox 1999 season,
as having "a sense of disease.... They reflect a fractured and uncertain society."

Tom Consadine at MTC, also reads unsolicited plays. Many, by middle-class, middle-aged white writers, voice concerns with aboriginality and reconciliation.

This is also true of Return to the Brink by Rodney Hall. It has elements of naturalism in the Australian historical and political landscape. It investigates the Mile creek massacre.

The other area that is very successful is drawing on television comedy. Secret Bridesmaid's Wedding by Elizabeth Coleman is a very funny situation comedy.

The content of our new work seems mainly concerned with social change and has a distressed rather than joyous quality. We are riddled with questions about the rightness of our journey into the 21st century.

Perhaps we need more Secret Bridesmaid's Weddings, which is a comic island in a sea of pain. I mean, you've gotta laugh!

By Kate Herbert

Friday 21 January 2000

Midsumma Night's Scream, Jan 21, 2000

Midsumma Night's Scream by Lieder of The Pack
at Chapel off Chapel, Jan 20  until Feb 2000
Midsumma Festival
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

The gay culture certainly stakes a claim on particular icons of the music and music theatre world. Streisand, Diana Ross, Madonna, Shirley Bassey and both Minogues are the property of the gay world.

Such blatant appropriation and obsession cries out loud to be ridiculed. Ron Bell's satirical lecture is undiscovered treasure. In Midsumma Night's Scream he presents a sardonic and often vitriolic  analysis of gay icons and pop music.

Bell presents his glib and hilarious opinions as pseudo-academic links between songs by cabaret group, Lieder of the Pack. (Renee Cash, Connie Panagakis, Ian Sequeira, Matthew Richardson).

Songs are bastardised for comedy. I Go To Rio is sung to the tune of Don't Cry Out Loud. Torn Between Two Lovers becomes a renaissance madrigal. Locomotion is sung backwards to reveal itself as Kylie's satanic plot to recruit lesbians. He subtitles her songs to reveal that her real sentiments are mere moneymaking ploys.

Bell uses low-tech projections to illustrate his point. He demonstrates the continuum of gay musical tastes from bisexual to university educated opera queens, from techno to Celine Dion. His flow chart is a comedy highlight.

The voices of the four singers carry the pop tunes commendably. This is a very entertaining show. However, opening night felt awkward and under-rehearsed. The singers badly need some 'attitude'. They seemed uncertain how to deliver the comedy.

The satirical edge was left to the deadpan Bell who delivers his gags tongue-in-cheek. His theory, which blows the lid off myths surrounding The Carpenters, is a treat. Bell is a truly gifted comedy writer.

With pianist, Warwick Sharpin they do fine renditions of ABBA songs, musical comedy tunes, Queen's Bohemian Rhapsody, YMCA, Carpenter and Minogue songs.

Director, Luke Gallagher, keeps the pace moving. However, the segues between Bell's jokes and songs are clumsy. The most successful moments are when the songs overlap and collide with the dialogue and gags. Otherwise, the format is fragmented. Songs and jokes were disconnected and links were tenuous.

There are moments when they try to do songs seriously that is out of step with the tone of the evening. With some smart restructuring, tight changes and slick technology, this could be a fabulous cabaret evening.

by Kate Herbert

Wednesday 19 January 2000

Prodigal Son, Jan 19, 2000

 Music by Mathew Frank, lyrics  & book by Dean Bryant 
at Chapel off Chapel until February 5, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

New Australian musicals are thin on the ground. The reason is not lack of talent but a lack of courage on behalf of producers and audience to take a punt on a no-name show. Lloyd-Webber, vapid as his work is, gets the hype and the ticket sales. More shame us.

Prodigal Son, with a cast of five, is the product of two 23-year-olds with a pack of skills, both of whom were trained at WAAPA musical theatre course in Perth.
 Composer, Mathew Frank, the sole musician on stage, draws on a number of musical theatre traditions. His tunes are singable and diverse.

Dean Bryant's lyrics are clever, often witty and tell the story clearly and succinctly through song.

In fact, the lyrics develop characters and narrative more effectively than does the dialogue. The spoken scenes lack emotional depth and range. This could be the area which needs attention in any reworking before a major season.

The story addresses the tumultuous changes experienced by Luke, a young man who leaves his family home in Eden, a paradise on the coast.

He goes to university in Sydney and there finally admits he is gay. In his confusion he parties too hard, fails his course, takes too many drugs and finally overdoses.

The voices are uneven in quality but the strongest is Barry Mitchell as dad. He brings great warmth to the role. Bryant is credible as the naive Luke. As mum, Jules Hutchinson is a perfect anzac-baking CWA mother.

Graham Pages is versatile in two roles: lover and brother. Amanda Levy as Maddy has a very light but peppy show-tune voice.

Director, Kris Stewart, has kept the style simple and the pace swift on an almost empty stage.

The show is a coming-of-age, coming-out story but it is primarily a tale about family. How does a young man deal with his "difference"? How do mum and dad from a conservative country town, cope with a gay son? What is maleness? How do we protect our children and still give them the freedom to be different from us?

Some of the messages are clumsily rendered but it is redeemed the honesty and commitment of the writers to the material, as well as its fine musicality..

by Kate Herbert

Sunday 16 January 2000

Judy Garland Slept Here & Full Frontal Male Nudity , Jan 16, 2000

 by Mark Dunn 
Midsumma Festival
at David Williamson Theatre until Feb, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Mark Dunn is a very clever playwright. His short plays cunningly address issues surrounding homosexuality in our presumably tolerant society.

Judy Garland Slept Here is the more sophisticated of the two plays in this program, which is part of the Midsumma Festival. Surprising events take place in Blythe Corners, a small town somewhere in the profoundly conservative and hypocritically religious southern states of America.

The premise is hilarious. All the men in town are suddenly coming out of the closet. All admit to being kissed by Judy Garland immediately before their first homo-erotic tingling. It had to be Judy who kissed them. No other Hollywood star has quite the same gay icon status.

Dunn has crafted the narrative skilfully. It is a satirical social commentary disguised as fluff. The denouement arising out of the bizarre story, is credible and carries a clear message. Dunn is committed to informing the broader community and shattering gay stereotypes. He is not telling us all to come out.

The second play is a meringue after the main course but, nonetheless, makes a clear point about gay male behaviour. Four anxious and under-confident gay men want to protest the closure of a nude gay beach but are too coy, closeted or embarrassed to march naked through the streets.

Their journey to confident, full-frontal nudity in the privacy of an apartment is a journey towards understanding that not all gay men are pretty exhibitionists with tight bottoms and sleek pecs. The gay club world makes these men invisible and insecure because they do not fit the cover-boy image. Sound familiar?

The performances are uneven in quality but the plays are no less enjoyable. Director, William Prior, (OK) has kept the pace swift and the characters broad. It is a pity he did not transpose the stories to Australia.

Christopher White (is versatile as the interviewer in Judy Garland and the geek in Full Frontal. Peter Montgomery has fun with multiple roles in Judy, particularly the motel owner, Duke. Sean Ladhams is entertaining and credible as the "outed" town copper.

It is a relief to see some strong writing in the Midsumma Festival which addresses more than the drag shows or innuendo-ridden comedy which often flood the gay entertainment scene.

by Kate Herbert

Saturday 8 January 2000

The Hound of the Baskervilles, Jan 8, 2000

Adapted from Sir Arthur Conan Doyle Avon Productions at Rippon Lea
Wed to Sun until January 30, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Several elements keep an audience interested in this production of The Hound of the Baskervilles. Not the least is the stately and beautiful gardens of Rippon Lea. Another is Conan Doyle's clever careful disguising of the real murderer.

This theatricalised version of the novel is adapted and directed by Gerard Cogley who also plays Sherlock Holmes' assistant, Dr. Watson.

Cogley's production take advantage of the lush environs without wheeling us around like supermarket trolleys to different sites. Three sites are sufficient.

The finals scene casts the lake as Great Grimpen Mire into which the villain plunges to his gruesome death. Conan Doyle, and indeed Holmes, enjoyed natural justice.

Interiors at Baker Street, London and of Baskerville Hall, are represented simply with a couple of pieces of furniture. The atmosphere is enhanced by live violin and simple but effective lighting (Andrew Casey).

In case you do not know the tale of the hell-hound, here it is. Holmes is employed to solve the death of  the head of the Baskerville family. He appears to have been frightened to death by a giant, supernatural hound.

Surprisingly, he sends Watson to investigate a threat against the new lord of the manor, a young American, Sir Henry Baskerville.

The servants, the locals, an escaped convict are all suspects but the eerie howl of a hound on the moors keeps the myth of the monster alive.

The denouement is played out very effectively in a dense (artificially induced) fog by the lake.
The performances are uneven in quality and the two women's voices (Fiona Harris, Niniane Le Page) are inaudible outdoors, a problem which could easily be solved.

Cogley captures the gentle blustering and warmth of Watson and Donald Baigent is a dashing and intense figure as the smug Holmes. Christopher Broadstock is versatile in a number of roles as is Dennis Manahan. Mike McLeish is credible as the youthful Sir Henry.

The show could tighten up its scene changes enormously and some pauses within scenes could happily cut fifteen minutes off it. However it is good, light summer outdoors entertainment for the family.

by Kate Herbert

Friday 7 January 2000

Life After George, Jan 7, 2000

 by Hannie Rayson Melbourne Theatre Company
at Fairfax Studio until February 12, 2000
Reviewer: Kate Herbert

Hannie Rayson's play, Life After George, sneaks up on you. It begins as a political-sociological analysis then segues into the deeper personal-psychological mire of a dead man and the women in his life.

Peter George, (Richard Piper) a radical Marxist historian, dies in a light plane crash. His three wives Beatrix, (Julia Blake) Lindsay (Sue Jones) and Poppy (Mandy McElhinney) and his daughter, Ana (Asher Keddie)  attend his funeral with George's close friend, Duffy. (Rhys McConnochie)

Rayson's play has a complex construction which shifts in time through George's chequered academic and emotional life. His politics are the focus of the first half. We move between his early radicalism in Paris during the 1968 riots, his academic rise in Melbourne in the 70's and his opposition to the corporatisation of universities in the 90's.

George is a charismatic and romantic academic. He is reminiscent of those heady 70's university days when lecturers slept with students uncriticised and sex was part of the curriculum.

The play considers the despair of abandoned wives and their children. It confronts the anguish wrought by a self-centred man who supported the world but not those he loved.

It questions whether it is a feminist action for Lindsay to surpass men in her academic career and whether the post-modern detachment of the 90's young woman is a betrayal of feminism.

It criticises the demise of our academic institutions as they fall victim to sponsorship deals and turn to vocational training. We are producing business fodder, not educated citizens.

Kate Cherry's direction is swift, simple and seamless and design  (Richard Roberts) lighting (David Murray) and music (David Chesworth) support her choices unobtrusively.

Blake is luminous, charming and funny as Beatrix, shifting effortlessly between decades. Jones' edgy and ambitious Lindsay, is compelling while Keddie is deeply sympathetic as the self-absorbed Ana. As Poppy a less-fully developed character, McElhinney is both vulnerable and irritating.

Piper is riveting, attractive and maddening as George and McConnochie, as the relative outsider, seems to be the only one truly forgiving and completely loving of George.

By the final, profoundly moving scene, we know these people in a peculiarly intimate way. We have been witness to their anguish and pain, joy and love and the conversion of their politics to suit the 90's.

This is a thought-provoking play, on both the personal and societal level.

by Kate Herbert